Rehabilitating Joseph McCarthy?

by Dan Quinn

To the abundant evidence showing that ideologues and non-historians shouldn’t be deciding what students learn in their history classrooms, add another exhibit: far-right efforts to use our kids’ classrooms to rehabilitate the image of  Joseph McCarthy and turn him into an American hero. Sadly, that’s what some members of the Texas State Board of Education and people they have appointed to help revise public school social studies curriculum standards are now trying to do.

McCarthy used his position in the Senate in the 1950s to publicly smear countless people with false charges that they were communists or sympathizers. He even accused entire organizations — such as the Democratic Party — of promoting treason. McCarthy’s witch hunts were so outrageous and shameful that even Republicans eventually turned on him. In 1954 the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. He then sank into relative obscurity and died a few years later at the age of 48.

But now right-wingers are once again promoting the nonsense that McCarthy was a truth-telling, anti-communist hero and patriot. And if they get their way, that’s what Texas history students will soon be learning in their public school classrooms.

As we reported last week, board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, earlier this month told curriculum writers in a memo: “Read the latest on McCarthy — He was basically vindicated.” One of the high school U.S. history curriculum writers — a political activist and non-educator appointed to the writing team by McLeroy — has also insisted that the standards point out that McCarthy was “exonerated” by revelations in the “Venona papers.” Peter Marshall, a conservative evangelical preacher appointed by the state board to a panel of social studies “experts,” backed that perspective in his review of the writing team’s first drafts of the proposed new standards. Marshall wrote that he “emphatically agrees” that the “Verona Papers … confirm as truth many of Senator McCarthy’s accusations about Soviet spying in the U.S.” David Barton, a Republican Party activist and another supposed “expert,” also agrees. Barton wrote in his review (same link as for Marshall’s) that the curriculum writer’s insistence about McCarthy “is quite proper and reflects a commitment to accuracy and truth in history.” State board chair Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, and board member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, have also asked the curriculum writers to include information about the “Verona papers” in the standards.

Once again, however, these amateur “historians” simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

First, the word is “Venona,” not the Italian city of Verona. “Venona” was the name given a U.S. counterintelligence project that decoded thousands of intercepted cables between spies in the United States and the Soviet Union. U.S. authorities were able, over several decades, to decode and read about 2,900 of the cabled messages (a fraction of the total) sent between 1941 and 1946.

Second, the claims by McLeroy, Barton, Marshall and the others about what the Venona project actually revealed about McCarthy’s smear campaign are misleading (at best). Curriculum writers will craft better standards if they listen to real historians instead of far-right ideologues pushing an agenda.

Among the most knowledgable experts on the Venona project is Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University. Prof. Klehr traveled in 1992 to the former Soviet Union, where he got access to Soviet spy archives. He also studied the Venona cables after the U.S. government declassified them in the 1990s. With John Earl Haynes, Prof. Klehr co-authored Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, published in 1999 by Yale University.

In short, when it comes to Soviet espionage in America, the Venona project and Joseph McCarthy, Prof. Klehr has the credentials to show that he knows what he’s talking about. In fact, he is very critical of those who still deny the extent of that espionage or downplay its significance.

But he isn’t buying efforts to rehabilitate McCarthy’s image. Prof. Klehr told an audience at a 2005 conference that McCarthy may have been right about “some of the larger issues” — such as, that there actually were communist spies in America — but that he was recklessly wrong on much else, especially the details:

[V]irtually none of the people that McCarthy claimed or alleged were Soviet agents turn up in Venona. He did identify a few small fry who we now know were spies but only a few. And there is little evidence that those he fingered were among the unidentified spies of Venona. Many of his claims were wildly inaccurate; his charges filled with errors of fact, misjudgments of organizations and innuendoes disguised as evidence. He failed to recognize or understand the differences among genuine liberals, fellow-traveling liberals, Communist dupes, Communists and spies — distinctions that were important to make. The new information from Russian and American archives does not vindicate McCarthy. He remains a demagogue, whose wild charges actually made the fight against Communist subversion more difficult. Like Gresham’s Law, McCarthy’s allegations marginalized the accurate claims. Because his facts were so often wrong, real spies were able to hide behind the cover of being one of his victims and even persuade well-meaning but naïve people that the who le anti-communist cause was based on inaccuracies and hysteria. [Emphasis added.]

So where are McLeroy and his fellow ideologues getting their information? Clearly, it’s not from real historians. Their likely source is a favorite of far-right ideologues today: fringe right-wing writers and commentators like Ann Coulter. In her 2003 book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, for example, Coulter insisted that the Venona Papers exonerated McCarthy. She charges that liberals don’t love their country and have undermined its security, and she points to conservatives like McCarthy as the true defenders of America and American values.

Prof. Klehr compares Coulter to those who excuse communist spies for doing what they may have thought was “patriotic” because they believed their loyalties were to the “masses” of the larger world rather than simply to their country:

“If espionage on behalf of Joseph Stalin’s Russia is simply an untraditional form of patriotism, then words like loyalty and patriotism have lost any meaning. It is only a short step to proclaiming that Joseph McCarthy’s disregard for due process and reckless smearing of innocent people is a non-traditional way of affirming basic American values. Which is exactly the argument that Ann Coulter makes in her unfortunate recent book, Treason, which seeks to rehabilitate Senator McCarthy as a great truth-teller. Her only excuse is that she is not a historian but a pundit and therefore can claim indifference to factual evidence.”

But Coulter’s arguments are the kind of nonsense people like McLeroy, Marshall and Barton want public schools to teach Texas students. Their interest is not in teaching real, factual history. They want to rewrite history so that it aligns with their own personal and political beliefs. (Remember that Barton wanted to censor discussions of César Chavez in social studies classes because the late labor leader’s political associations allegedly made him a poor role model for students:  “His open affiliation with Saul Alinsky’s movements certainly makes dubious that he is a praiseworthy to be heralded to students as someone ‘who modeled active participation in the democratic process.'”)

As we have said, it would be far better if real historians and social studies experts were making these curriculum decisions. But that’s not going to happen — state lawmakers refused to act this spring on legislation requiring such a change in the curriculum development process. So we’re stuck with decision-makers like McLeroy. Recall what he has said in the past: “I disagree with these experts! Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts!” And facts be damned.